“Being in politics is like being a football coach. You have to be smart enough to understand the game, and dumb enough to think it’s important.” ~ Eugene McCarthy
Two uniquely American events are about to descend upon us: the Super Bowl and the presidential election. The American public is held enthralled with the spectacle of both, dedicating a seemingly unhealthy amount of watercooler, dinner table, and bar stool conversations to who is going to “win the big game.”
In fact, both of these two highly publicized exhibitions offer a number of parallels that highlight the ethically dubious values they share—and we, by default, celebrate.
Two Teams That the Majority of Americans Don’t Care About
The playing field starts with many teams, but—in the end—only two make it to the bitter end. And unless you are a diehard Broncos or Panthers fan, you most likely don’t care about the outcome of Sunday’s game.
However, watching the Super Bowl is an American tradition. Average viewership of the championship is roughly 117 million people worldwide. Even if your team isn’t in the game, you are most likely watching.
The same goes for voting. A strong plurality of Americans—a record-high 42 percent according to Gallup—don’t identify with either of the two major parties, and consider themselves independent. However, come Election Day, American independents feel obligated to vote for one of two teams, because they don’t have much else to choose from.
Through the cunning use of wedge issues, American voters “settle” on their version of the “lesser evil.” It’s a form of tribalism that happens so naturally that most people don’t even realize it.
Whether Broncos versus Panthers or Democrats versus Republicans, you can either choose a side or be a meaningless spectator in the nose bleed section. How many Cleveland Browns fans do you think voted for Nader?
The Public Foots the Bill for Private Parties
Corporatism — the land of the publicly funded and privately profitable — rule the day for both politics and football.
Love or hate football, if you live in a city that hosts an NFL team, you probably paid for the team’s stadium through your tax dollars.
Sports Authority Field at Mile High Stadium in Denver cost taxpayers $300 million over a ten-year period between 2002 and 2012.
Meanwhile in Charlotte, North Carolina, Bank of America Stadium received $40 million from the city and $10 million from the county. Furthermore, the city council unanimously approved an $87.5 million upgrade to the stadium, including the renovation of luxury suites.
Levi Stadium, where the Super Bowl is taking place, cost local residents about $114 million in public funds.
Prior to the general election, taxpayers foot the bill for the two political parties to determine their nominees. Estimates suggest that over $400 million in public funds were leveraged by the Democrats and Republicans to fund and administer their primaries and caucuses.
Furthermore, most of the primaries and caucuses alienate unaffiliated and independent voters by not allowing them to participate in the process unless they register with one party or the other.
Nothing says democratic republic like not allowing people to participate but still making them pay the bill.
Tons of Money for Ineffective Commercials
Even if you are not a fan of either team, many tune in to the Super Bowl just for the commercials. Airtime during the sporting event is costly—as high as $5 million for 30 seconds—so businesses typically put their best efforts for something memorable. Often times, most folks watch the Super Bowl just to get a giggle over these commercials.
On the political side of this metaphor, the advertisements for elections are not as popular. This is mostly due to the pejorative nature of the practice: In 2012, the ratio of negative to positive advertisements was 7:1.
Regardless of the content, campaigns and SuperPACs shell out a good chunk of change to connect with voters through the boob tube. Projections estimate that 2016 campaigns will spend $4.4 billion on television ads alone.
Considering the huge investment made to influence buyers/voters, the question remains: Is there a reasonable ROI with these commercials? The answer to that is up for debate.
According to political scientists John Sides and Lynn Vavreck, political ads have a marginal and short-lived impact on the mindset of voters. As for companies that shell out the big bucks for airtime during the big game, only one out of five commercials inspire consumers to buy a product, leading four out of five professional marketers to declare the practice a bust.
Can the Super Bowl Predict the Presidential Race?
The bond between the Super Bowl and the presidential election is considered to be more than metaphorical. Observers of both events have found a link between the conference of the winning Super Bowl team and the political party of the President-Elect.
When an AFC team won, a Republican was elected eight months later. And the NFC offers the inverse for the Democrats. This spurious correlation has worked since 1980, except for once—the contested 2000 election between George W. Bush and Al Gore. (Perhaps the correlation doesn’t apply when hanging chads are involved.)
If you are “Feeling the Bern” or “Ready for Hillary,” you better hope Cam Newton can overcome that stellar Broncos defense. Otherwise, you can expect supporters of Cruz, Rubio, and the GOP to be cheering for Peyton Manning.
Regardless of who you cheer for or vote for (even if not enthusiastically), the one certainty that we can all expect from the Super Bowl and Election Day is the fact that they will end—only for us to relive them again for their next iteration.
So find a seat, grab a beverage, and prepare to watch these big money, competitive exhibitions unfold on your screens. Armchair quarterbacks and armchair pundits alike are welcome.